Journalists have one of two reactions to this news. Neither one of them is correct.
The first reaction involves a weary sigh and soldiering on. These reporters have somehow survived the bloodletting in newsrooms over the past decade, struggling beneath increasing demands with decreasing resources. They know things are bad; they just don’t have the energy to marshal a stronger response. I can’t say I blame them.
Then there are those who get defensive. Tim Skubick, a political columnist, went that route in a recent column in which he leveled most of the blame at narrow-minded and scandal-hungry consumers, mistake-prone journalists and rumor-mongering bloggers.
“Fact is, reporters are not on anybody’s side,” he wrote. “Correspondents are disinterested third-party observers and not prone to advance any cause.”
On a philosophical level (and as an old reporter myself), I agree with Skubick on the objective role of journalists. On a practical one, he missed the mark.
The issue in journalism is not one of popularity; it’s one of respect. And sadly, the field has lost a great deal of the latter.
Much blame rests at the feet of journalism itself—to Skubick’s point, partly as a result of the aforementioned slash-and-burn among newsroom and production staffs. The flow of mistakes in reporting and content has become almost comical. A few weeks ago, I opened a newspaper and beheld the same wire story, with identical photos and nearly identical headlines, on two facing pages. I didn’t know whether to be amused or disturbed. What I wasn’t, sadly, was surprised.
Similarly, the demand upon short-staffed newsrooms to “feed the beast”—especially the ravenous digital beast—means more stories of varied significance and fewer enterprise or investigative pieces. There’s been some effort to reverse this trend—partnerships like ProPublica, enterprise teams within news media chains like MLive, etc.—but a lot of day-to-day reporting relies necessarily on low-hanging fruit.
But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lean by some media outlets toward one or another political ideology, rejecting objectivity in deed if not in word. One study, again by the folks at Pew, found 85 percent of programming on MSNBC was opinion-driven, with 55 percent at Fox and 46 percent at CNN.
These are trends that have snuffed the respect of consumers for the news media. This is where I fear Skubick missed the point. The Pew survey isn’t describing the likeability of journalists; it’s reflecting the public’s view that journalists no longer serve the role Skubick insists caused their low ranking: that of the accurate, informational, relevant watchdog.
Consider yet another study by the Pew Center, the biennial study of media attitudes. While the results are largely negative, there are some bright spots. Some 68 percent of respondents said media coverage keeps political leaders from doing wrong, and support for news media embracing the watchdog role rose 10 points.
The answer, then, lies with journalism. What’s needed is less finger-pointing, more quality reporting. Greater objectivity, relevancy and accuracy are the essential ingredients for a return to form. That means reversing the budget-cutting trend and making greater investment in news gathering and reporting—a tall order in cash-strapped times, but crucial for the future of journalism.